Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Friday, 19 February 2021

Exploring the industrial archaeology of the river Tamar

 Exploring the industrial archaeology of the river Tamar

I have over the years made many voyages up the river Tamar and also the Lynher. However, more often than not, I have sailed up both rivers as far as I can and in doing so, I have passed by many nooks and crannies’ that are worthy of fuller exploration.

I had two articles recently published in the Dinghy Cruising Journal outlining one such three-day trip back in 2019 and you can access those articles here, if you are interested:

I also wrote another article for another magazine on what I had learned as a novice sailor about dinghy cruising up tidal rivers, an article aimed at beginners like me:

If you prefer visual, then my playlist of Tamar and Lynher cruises can be found here:

Use the 'search' box on the right hand menu to find other posts about the Tamar and the Lynher - use the terms 'Tamar' and 'Lynher'. 

So, with all that material available to encourage you to bring your boat down this way for a cruise, why do any more about sailing the Tamar?

Well, it’s the valleys unique industrial archaeology. The Tamar valley and its associated tributaries are an UNESCO World Heritage site. Everything from brick works to arsenic mines and much more besides. And during a conversation up at Cotehele, with some local filmmakers about something else entirely, I suddenly realised I had been missing opportunities when voyaging the area to really explore this hidden and/or long forgotten history.

The Bealeswood Brickworks
Copyright: Tamar Valley Industrial archaeology website

If you believe in co-incidences, then you will like this one. A week after this conversation, a blog and vlog subscriber got in touch with me as well to offer me an old copy of a book about the maritime culture of the Tamar Valley. I could have it, if I promised to go and explore the salt marsh areas opposite Cargreen.

We have been so used to learning about the maritime history associated with the river Tamar, about boats like ‘Shamrock’ and the people who sailed her or some of the famous boatyards such as that of ‘Goss’ up at Calstock, that as Ian D Merry put it in his lovely Maritime Monograph and Report ‘The shipping and trade of the river Tamar’ (Part 1 – No. 46, 1980)

 “much information was also being uncovered not only about the barges and other sailing craft using the river……..but above all about the river’s influence on the pattern of life and shipping along its banks.”

“..the close interweaving of land and shipping activities in the lives of the population along its tidal reaches had a significance and interest setting them apart from other south England riverside communities”.

I’m now part way through this lovely book/pamphlet and I have to say it is a fascinating read and its helping crystallise some ideas in my head.

The 'Garlandstone' tied up at Morwellham Quay
Copyright: The Morwellham Museum

The Tamar with its variable winds and tides, mudflats and fringing marshlands, is a rich, complex river system where through history, a mariner’s world and that of local farmers often combined. Many farmers were part time bargemen or active shareholders in the barges that took their produce down river to market. Often farmers had their own little boats to go off in search of sand or seaweed for manure on their fields and many farms had their own little quaysides. Some even acted as ferry points across the river from Devon to Cornwall and back again. Whatever the case, as Merry observed “the possession of a boat and the skill to use it was as essential to the Tamar Valley farmer as knowing where his best field lay for the growing of wheat”.

It is these little quays that attract my interest. I’ve managed to ground myself on the ancient remains of one of them already; trapping Arwen’s rudder between some old Cornish boulders and rotting timber baulks that edged an original old stone quay, on the way up to Treluggan. A sharp lesson  learned about always keeping your eye out for navigation hazards and not closing too close with a river shoreline!  

Then, I haven't been up the Tavy yet to Bere Ferrers and Lopwell Dam; I haven't explored Millbrook and I still fancy seeing how far I can get up the rivers Polbathic and Tiddy. Then there are the  Kingsmill, Wivelscombe and Forder Lakes as well. 

With its steep valley sides, frequent reedy river margins and lack of roads down to the water’s edge, there was always gong to be a close relationship between farmer and sailor in the Tamar Valley.  The river was always the easiest way of getting into and out of the area. And then of course, there was the 19th C discovery of metalliferous mines. As Merry says, the Tamar valley, already a notable Middle Ages centre for lead and silver mining, became a major centre of copper and arsenic production as well. And from that point on, local sailing transport dominated the river right up to the end of WW2.

As is the way, one industry attracts another, the good old geographical ‘multiplier effect’. Agriculture and mining led to shipbuilding; the need for quaysides led to quarrying. A demand for local housing generated by all these industries led to local brickmaking.  With primitive quays and rocky, sloping hards, local boats had to be rugged and thus Tamar barges were massively timbered boats. By the 19th C two types of boat for the Tamar were being built – the Tamar barges – heavy and stout and capable of coastal voyages; and then lighter boats for ’inside the river’ work.


The old Goss's boatyard up at Calstock
Copyright: The Morwellham Museum

With all this in mind, an idea has begun to take shape. An exploration series of mini voyages; piloting Arwen up the many muddy creeks and tidal inlets to find the hidden brickworks, the crumbling farm quaysides, the old arsenic mines and the ancient limekilns. Journeys, pushing through small creeks in fringing reedbeds and up the tiny streams into the old ‘Lakes’.

Arwen’s centreboard is going to bounce on the sandbanks; her rudder may get stuck in the mud. I’m going to miscalculate and find myself ‘high and dry’ until the next tide. I will have to learn to work the spring tides effectively. I’d better sort out the rowing position, because there is going to be a fair amount of that. I may even need to fashion some form of ‘punt pole’.  I need to learn how to tow ‘Angharad’ my tiny ‘Stickleback’ canoe behind Arwen.

But, the glimpses of reed wildlife, the ruins of Victorian industrial archaeology, opportunities for some stunning landscape astrophotography with the milky way behind old chimney stacks; and meeting people who still rely on the river for their economic survival. What great experiences these will be. What a set of mini voyages. All those sailing skills to be learned and mastered.


Arwen, on a recent voyage up the Tamar and the Lynher
Tied up at 'The Treluggan Boatyard' pontoon

Over the next few weeks, I will study the maps, the charts and old photographs, to work out an itinerary of places to visit by boat, canoe and on foot. I’ll share these plans as they unfold. To be sure, it isn’t going to be a one-year project. My initial guess is this will take a couple of sailing seasons at least and my first inclination is to head up river to Calstock and from there right up to Morwellham quay. From there, I will then slowly work down the river in sections.  It may be over ambitious; I may give up part way through because I tire of it and there are, let’s face it, other places to sail and adventures to be had (I’m still working on my ‘grand voyage’ one sailing season – a complete voyage from Penzance back around to Topsham, up the river Exe – stopping off at various places and sailing up some river systems like the Fal and the Fowey).

Time will tell. But right now, this Tamar project has caught my interest and its worth pursuing a little further.


Boats up at Calstock in the 19th C
copyright: Calstock Parish Council 

Some interesting pictures of the old quayside of New Port on the upper Tamar can be found here:

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